Fire For Effect
Fire for effect
Words / Whitney Branshaw
Photos / Apache Sands & Whitney Branshaw
It was early December in Alaska and I was tucked into bed with my laptop, cradling the phone between my ear and shoulder, madly typing while listening to Corporal Apache Sands retell a mission that had gone awry. I’d heard the story before, but not like this. This time it was detailed, it was a real life account. It was exactly what I asked for, but it didn’t make it easier to hear. “You know, Whit, I really should have done some more research,” he tells me with a laugh. “I had no fucking clue what I was getting myself into when I joined the Army.”
"I was 5 months into my deployment in Khost Province, Afghanistan with the 501st Parachute Infantry, Regiment based out of JBER in Anchorage. That day, we got tasked with a big patrol that involved going to the point of origin where we were getting indirect fire from. We were getting shot at by mortars and it was about the 3,000th time too, so it was worth the annoyance and concern and desire to check it out. But let me be clear when I say this, no one was excited about this patrol, we all had a bad feeling about it. But, like everything else in the Army, you do what you’re told. So, we suited up and went. We go on patrol, check everything out. It’s all kosher. We figure there isn’t anything going on here, so we fuck around a bit, kick some rocks around, smoke a cigarette, and wait for the green light to begin extraction.”
“You never take the same way you came in this business, they (terrorists) will surely go behind you and plant bombs and try to ruin your fucking day. It never fails. We get the go-ahead and start moving out, taking an alternate route back to base. We were about a mile from where we had just come from. I was in the second truck back, trailing close behind the mine roller that was running in front of us. I was standing in the turret, manning the machine gun, when the truck I was in took a corner turn tighter than the mine roller in front of us. We rolled over a 35 lb. IED and it went off.”
“It was the weirdest feeling, getting blown up, almost like Déjà vu. You know what’s happening, but there isn’t anything to do about it. I could see the blast before I could hear it or feel it. It was bright. I stood there and watched the whole scene unfold from up top and, I shit you not, the ammo for the 50 cal blew out from behind the canister in a perfectly straight line. I remember watching it happen and thinking, “fuck, this is a weird sight.” Everything that’s happening in those situations feels like minutes or sometimes hours, but it’s really only seconds. It’s amazing how well you get to know people’s voices. I could tell everyone was mostly okay without even seeing them. We followed procedure and exited the truck, cleared the area, communicated with the others. I prepared to move my guys to a safe point, which meant we had to move up the road that we had just blown up. I went first, leading the other guys, and spaced us out about 30-40 feet. I did this hoping that if we stepped onto another IED it would only take one of us. We all tiptoed down that road as fast as we could. Then we called in the wrecker and an EOD team to come in and get our vehicle, search for other explosives, and assist us with extract. At this point, the wrecker and EOD is almost to us and the wrecker hits another IED on the same road in the same spot that we had just silently moved over. The driver was injured.”
“No one is having any fun and shit is about to get worse. We were waiting for something, I’m not sure what. There were about 7 of us milling about in this same area, we had cleared it, and we thought it was safe. One of the men there was Sgt. Walker. He took a knee. Directly on top of the pressure plate for an IED. He was blown about 30-feet over a wall. One of my buddies scaled that wall in his full kit, got to him and moved him back to safety while my other buddies placed tourniquets and tried to save his life. He lost 3 limbs that day. You hear a lot of these GWOT (Global War on Terrorism) dudes talking about possible failures in these situations, even the hardest-dick-mother-fucker can’t argue with that. Were there things we could have done differently? It’s our responsibility to bring everyone back safely. So, when you ask me what keeps me up at night, how combat changed me, it’s shit like this and the fact that we will never have the opportunity to go back and make it right again."
Sands grew up in a small Midwest town on a ranch, working with his hands. He came from a family that were “salt of the earth” kind of folk. Apache enlisted in the Army when he was 19-years-old. He was sent to Basic Training at Ft. Benning in Georgia. He went on to graduate Airborne School and then was given orders to be stationed in Alaska in January of 2011. He spent the winter and spring of 2011 proving himself to his unit, making friends in a place where he didn’t know anyone that could help him get to know Alaska and all it had to offer. That spring, his unit got word that they would be deployed to Afghanistan in September. “Getting ready for deployment was so fun, everyone was so excited,” Sands tells me. “It’s like Christmas when your 5. Everyone wants to shoot guns and blow shit up. Who doesn’t? It’s the reason all of us had joined.”
Apache was 20 when he deployed to Afghanistan. He says that the first few months of deployment were “boring as shit.” Nothing was happening, a lot of kicking dirt around and bullshitting. But then Bomb Season came around, and morale oddly kicked up. People were ready for action and action is what they got. Apache survived two IED blasts, one detailed in the beginning of this piece, and one that involved an RPG that sliced through his truck. When he went home on R&R in July, the insomnia started. He couldn’t sleep, no matter what he did. So, he drank to quiet his senses. The insomnia continued into his deployment, when he returned back to duty in Afghanistan. His deployment ended in September of 2012 and his unit returned to Alaska, where he attempted to get help right away. Something wasn’t right though, and he knew it. He saw multiple doctors – Traumatic Brain Injury Specialists, Sleep Study Specialists, he even saw acupuncturists and took countless medications including anti-depressants, anti-anxiety, and sleep aids, among others. The medications didn’t work and they left him feeling worse than before he started taking them. He accessed all the avenues he possibly could, but came up against the same answers and stigmas and suggestions.
“You gotta understand this, Whit, the Army hates you for trying to get help. All your medical appointments end up being during your workday. So, when you aren’t there doing your job, trying to get the help you need, they talk shit to you. But what a lot of these dudes don’t realize is that if you try to tough it out and don’t get this stuff documented then you don’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to getting a legitimate disability rating, especially if you have a legitimate deficit that you are looking at living with when your time in the Army is up.”
Nothing helped him or provided relief from the symptoms of his Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Alcohol continued to dull his senses enough to grab the occasional few hours of shuteye. I met Apache and his beautiful wife in the fall of 2013, when I was dating his close friend, a battle buddy of his. I knew he had trouble sleeping, but I didn’t know him well enough yet to know it was a problem.
Apache left the Army in June of 2014, when his contract was up. After he was discharged, he was given an 80% disability rating. He and wife moved to Vegas. He kept looking for answers to his insomnia, which started the process of him cycling through the VA system. He had three sleep studies done, which found nothing that seemed to contribute medically to his insomnia. He was given a C-Pap machine to wear while sleeping, but didn’t have Sleep Apnea so it didn’t help him, nor did it make sense to interrupt his sleep more by wearing the cumbersome machine. He continued drinking and struggling through his days for the time being. Eventually he had exhausted the treatment options suggested by the VA and decided to see if cannabis would relieve the symptoms he was plagued with. “When we’re talking relief of my symptoms – the anxiety, the insomnia – nothing compares. Cannabis has changed my life in such a positive way. It’s hard to explain or put into words.” His anxiety lessened and he was able to sleep easier without the aid of alcohol.
Sands and his wife moved back to the Midwest this past summer. He applied for his medical marijuana card in the state he resides in, outside of the VA system, and received it. He continues to medicate with cannabis in order to find relief from his symptoms. He closes our conversation, lamenting one more thing: “I just wish that this was an option for treatment of TBI or PTSD through the VA. It’s frustrating that I can’t even discuss using cannabis versus prescription medications with my provider for fear of being discriminated against or having my benefits altered. It seems pretty fucked that I sacrificed for this country and I can’t cope with the outcome of that sacrifice in a way I feel comfortable with.”
Sands’ story is one that is all too common in the conversation surrounding Veterans struggling with combat related diagnoses such as PTSD, TBI, anxiety, and chronic pain from injuries. The use of cannabis as medicine by our veterans is becoming an important topic in the cannabis community. The Weed for Warriors Project (WFWP) is a non-profit organization founded in California, with chapters all over the United States, including Alaska. WFWPs sole purpose is advocating to the Veterans Affairs Administration on behalf of all veterans, aiming to allow veterans the use of marijuana as a recognized medical alternative to psychiatric drugs and pain medications without discrimination. They're also working to help put an end to the epidemic of 22+ veteran suicides a day. Polypharmacy – the use of four or more medications by a single patient – is common among veterans. Prescriptions that aim to curb insomnia, manage depression, anxiety, and most prevalent, the crippling diagnosis of combat related PTSD are the most common. The practice of polypharmacy puts patients at risk for a host of side effects, many of which have been linked to suicide.
I talked with Ricardo Pereyda, Vice President of WFWP, over the phone to get his input on the progression of cannabis in the medical community and how it impacts our veteran population. “The main thing we want is to be able to have an open and honest conversation with our medical providers at the VA about our healthcare and to feel like we have choices and respected input in how we choose to medicate. I can have an endless supply of OxyContin, but I can’t smoke a joint to treat my symptoms without fear of being discriminated against? That doesn’t sit well with me.”
The VA is a federal entity and their employees are barred from recommending cannabis as a medical alternative. This translates to the absence of a meaningful conversation about the possible medicinal benefits of cannabis. The WFWP crew recently went on a cross country tour, where they met up with other WFWP chapters. They ended their tour in front of the White House on Veteran's Day, dumping out box after box of empty prescription medication bottles. Their message was clear: Stop overmedicating our veterans.
On November 10th there was a small victory for medicinal marijuana seeking veterans. A bill called “The Veterans Equal Access Amendment” passed through the senate. It would prohibit the VA from penalizing a veteran who uses medical marijuana in accordance with state law. Michael Collins, the Deputy Director of National Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, released this simple statement in regard to that victory: “Veterans in medical marijuana states should be treated as any other resident, and should be able to discuss marijuana with their doctor. It makes no sense that a veteran can’t use medical marijuana if it helps them and is legal in their state.”
WFWP's chapter in Alaska, also known as the Alaska Veterans Cannabis Resource Organization (AVCRO), is actively helping veterans on a daily basis. AVCRO verifies service through the veteran’s DD214. They then provide them with cannabis and cannabis related products strictly through donations they receive from Alaskans. They also spend time helping veterans build their own grow operations through donated equipment and 'clones.' A clone is a cutting from a mother plant that is used to grow another mature plant that will flower. The AVCRO believes that the use of medicinal cannabis could reduce the 22+ veteran suicides a day.
The Alaska Green Angels (AGA) is another avenue for veterans to access medicinal cannabis in the private sector. Darby Andrews is a longtime Girdwood resident and is a well-known glass blower who helps lead the charge for AGA. He sets up shop at the Forest Fair every year and showcases his unique work with the recognizable DRB logo stamped into the glass. AGA is a non-profit operation that aims to provide high quality medicinal cannabis to vetted medicinal needs patients at no charge. AGA operates strictly on donations of cannabis or plant matter that can be used to make tinctures, edibles, and pain salves, among others. Darby invites me out to his glass studio in Girdwood on a rainy day in October to discuss AGA and his experiences with Cannabis.
Through Darby's work with AGA, he helps patients with diagnoses ranging from cancer, seizure disorders, neurological disorders, PTSD, and chronic pain, among others. He greets me warmly and with open arms, inviting me into his shop. He explains how he was drawn to cannabis for its medicinal values, which eventually fueled the fire for AGA. Darby is a veteran. He served during Desert Storm. Multiple times during our conversation he stands tall, folds himself in half and stretches his hands to the ground. His discomfort is evident. He suffers from chronic pain issues and PTSD, touting cannabis as his main choice for pain control and alleviation of his symptoms. He offers this insight to me: “The VA will give me enormous amounts of pain medications, but the side effects are terrible. Their answer for my problems is to have me on a pill, that’s not what I want. Cannabis works for me and allows me to be present in life.” Darby looks forward to the regulations surrounding recreational cannabis in Alaska being finalized peacefully and fairly, allowing for safe access to high quality cannabis for those in need, especially the people AGA helps. Having spent many years behind the scene watching the history of medicinal cannabis unfold in Alaska, this cause is especially close to his heart. We spend the rest of the afternoon working with glass and laughing, sharing stories and experiences. He presents me with a custom Alaska pendant, for my daughter, that he made. I’ve been here awhile. It’s time for me to head out. So, that’s what I do, promising to visit him again soon.
We have a growing veteran population here in Alaska – many come on orders and naturally fall in love with the people, places, and outdoors. So, they stay. Veterans, like all people seeking relief, need options. Medicinal cannabis should be one of them. The cannabis community is taking note of the benefits that medicinal and recreational cannabis can provide veterans in their everyday life. They should be able to access cannabis in a safe and secure way, especially in the states where medical marijuana is already legal. Why would we discriminate against them and treat them like second-class citizens? Let’s end the overmedication of our veterans and continued unmonitored polypharmacy. Let’s start talking about this as a community and fuel this fire through our legislators, who can move this cause to Washington DC, where it belongs. 22+ veterans take their own lives every single day. We have to do better. We must do better. We can do better.
In loving memory of R.E.W.